With Sukkot having come to a close a full three weeks ago, we would expect that pretty much everyone who came to Jerusalem for the Feast of Sukkot has now returned home. Such was the situation recorded in the Gospel of John at the close of Chapter 7, which records Jesus’ visit to Jerusalem during Sukkot. That chapter ends simply:
“Everyone went to his home.”
But the chapter that immediately follows tells the story of what happened in the life of Jesus, when He stayed on in Jerusalem following that very same Sukkot. John Chapter 8 tells the most famous story of the woman who was caught in the act of adultery.
What does a story about adultery, you may ask, have anything to do with a column whose pages attempt to gaze upon the relationship between Christians and Jews? In fact, it has everything to do with such a topic, because this gripping story has historically caused many Christians to walk away from both the Torah and the Jewish people in one fell swoop.
This week we will take up the “Problem of the Torah” that is raised in these verses. And along the way, we will take a crack at proposing a solution to the mystery that has long accompanied this story: what might Jesus have written on the ground?
It is in this context that I would like to introduce yet another woman into the mix of this column series. Last week I quoted from the words of Britt Lode, the editor of The Light from Zion. This week I would like to quote from the words of Lesley Richardson, a person whose book, Bible Gems from Jerusalem, has been previously featured on our Root Source interview series with Lesley.
Lesley takes on the story of the adulterous woman in one of her chapters, and has a view which I have found to be fascinating and instructive. Rather than speak about her work, I have asked her permission to quote significant portions of that chapter. After her commentary, I will make some concluding remarks.
Lesley Richardson on Jesus and the Adulterous Woman
The 8th chapter of John’s Gospel commences by relating that Jesus then returned to Jerusalem and began to teach in the Temple “early in the morning” – as the light came flooding from the eastern horizon to illuminate the new day that was dawning. Here in the treasury, as He taught, one of the most dramatic scenes recorded in the Gospels unfolded. John’s account of this event is only 12 verses in length, but it became one of the best known and most loved passages of the New Testament. The story of the Woman Taken in Adultery is one of the gems of world literature. Within its small compass it is entirely flawless, and its revelation of God’s mercy toward sinners as demonstrated through the words and actions of Jesus has captivated generations of readers. However, this exceptional narrative, and most especially Jesus’ words, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her,” have been misunderstood in various ways. What are some of the problems to be found in many traditional explanations of the text?
In the first place, many interpreters have viewed the passage through a moralistic lens, arguing it teaches that because all have sinned it is therefore hypocritical for any Christian to presume to pass judgment on another. As the logical consequence of this argument, it would seem that only a completely righteous person has the right to make a decision concerning sin and guilt – which would ultimately suggest that God alone can act as judge. This is a conclusion which flies directly in the face of a great number of New Testament scriptures concerned with disciplining erring Christians. Even more problematic than this kind of exegesis, however, is that which understands the passage to demonstrate that it was Jesus’ intention to overthrow the law. Such interpretations reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the Old Testament regulations, which had been mediated through Moses and had governed the Israelite community for thousands of years. That great prophet had never stated that a man needed to be perfect in order to judge adultery, or any other crime for that matter – quite obviously, the officers and judges who operated under the Old Covenant system were not without personal sin, yet were still held capable of making crucial decisions concerning justice in the community.
When the story is read in this way it has the final and most unfortunate effect of “casting stones,” as it were, at the Old Testament law, implying that the rules and commandments found therein were harsh and burdensome, and that furthermore they were administered by men who were unfeeling and judgmental. It was the law which mandated the death of the adulteress (Leviticus 20:10), and thus Jesus was seen as granting her unconditional freedom and forgiveness, demonstrating in this way that with His coming a new age of grace had dawned. And yet, while that was certainly true, the passage is not revealing that it was Jesus’ intention to set aside the clear requirements of Mosaic legislation in order to show mercy. Jesus was not arguing on this occasion that adultery was not a punishable sin, nor that one needed to be perfect in order to judge anyone guilty of a transgression. In fact, in this episode of the Adulterous Woman, it can be demonstrated that Jesus not only obeyed the Mosaic Law as those present understood it, but also endorsed it completely.
It is a remarkable picture John presents, full of the most intense human interest and pathos, which has captured the imagination of numerous artists over the centuries, and compelled them to render the scene at its most arresting moment: the Pharisees and scribes standing on one side, their faces hard and accusing, Jesus seated over against them, and the woman in the midst. “But,” the narrative continues, “Jesus stooped down, and with His finger wrote on the ground … And again He stooped down, and wrote on the ground” (8:6b-8). Was this action on His part simply an indication that He, who knew so well what was in the hearts of men, was unwilling to continue looking upon the display of arrogance and hypocrisy on the part of the religious leaders? Or was there some particular significance in the words which He had written?
The suggestions as to what Jesus might have written in the dust are numerous and full of ingenuity – some say He wrote the sins of the witnesses, or a pardon, others suggest it was the name of the man involved in the adultery who was noticeably absent from the scene. However, perhaps it is not so much what He wrote that was significant; rather, the important thing is that He wrote, for by this action He was surely alluding to the fact that the Ten Commandments given to Moses were inscribed on two stone tablets “written with the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18). Regardless of what Jesus actually set down, John was indicating that He was claiming to be the actual Writer of the Law. This view is reinforced by the fact that He wrote a second time, bringing to mind God’s creation of the second set of tablets after the first had been destroyed.
Nevertheless, there is an Old Testament scripture which has good claim to be the subject of Jesus’ inscription in the dust. In light of Jesus’ pronouncement at the just-concluded feast, it is possible to imagine that what He wrote upon the earth was the message of Jeremiah 17:12-13:
“O Lord the Hope of Israel, all that forsake You shall be ashamed. Those who depart from Me shall be written in the dust, because they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living waters.”
According to this scripture, those “written in the dust” stand in profound contrast to those who have their names inscribed in the book of life (Exodus 32:32; Daniel 12:1). This powerful metaphor is also reminiscent of God’s pronouncement to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, “Dust you are, and unto dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). It indicates with great finality the fate of those who turn away from the Source of Life.
Yet Jesus not only knew the hearts of those making the accusation against the woman, He also knew the law of Moses and was presently fulfilling it, in their hearing and in their seeing. He then raised Himself up and made His famous pronouncement, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). With these words, He acknowledged the valid application of the law of Moses to the situation before Him and ratified the punishment as given in the statutes. However, He did not leave the matter there. In calling for those who carried out the sentence to be “without sin” He was alluding to another Mosaic requirement for the proposed action; namely, that witnesses to a crime should have pure and impartial hearts:
“If a malicious witness rises up against a man to accuse him of wrongdoing then both the men who have the dispute shall stand before the Lord … and if the witness is a false witness you shall do to him just as he had intended to do to his brother” (Deuteronomy 19:16-19)
The law made very clear that only an objective, non-malevolent witness could testify in a legal matter and Jesus, through His enunciation of the “without sin” principle, was questioning the validity of the scribes and Pharisees as witnesses to this particular transgression. He knew they were testifying against the woman not out of a blameless heart of concern for justice in Israel, nor out of zeal for the holy Name of God; rather, their intentions were so malign that they were prepared to sacrifice another individual, one made in the image of God, in order to attain their purposes. Moreover, the law was clear that if the witnesses were indeed motivated by evil inclinations they were subject to the very punishment they had proposed for the adulteress. It is noticeable also that, throughout the scene, Jesus never stood up but rather was sitting: the position of Judge.
As the saying of Jesus fell upon their ears, the accusers of the woman, who until that point had been so vocal, were silenced. Deeply, sharply, pierced His words into each conscience, bringing a stunned realization of the veracity of His judgment. One by one the Pharisees walked out of the Temple area, the oldest going first, suggesting that those who were most familiar with the scriptures recognized more swiftly their guilt under the very Mosaic Law by which they had proposed to judge the woman.
Jesus remained on the scene, still bent over and writing, with the woman standing before him. In Augustine’s words, “The two were left alone, misera et misericordia” – “a wretched woman and Mercy.” Then Jesus straightened up and said to the adulteress, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” This was a technical legal question, for witnesses were required before guilt could be established and a sentence passed. She answered, “No one Lord.” And Jesus spoke to her the words which overflowed with His forgiving mercy and love, and which have comforted generations of believers: “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more” (John 8:11).
What Lesley has revealed to us is not simply a Jewish Jesus who values mercy, but a Jewish Jesus who does so within the bounds of the Torah. Jesus was not overthrowing, setting aside, or even side-stepping the Torah, nor was he inviting us to do the same. Rather, He masterfully revealed how they can be brought together, even as the Psalmist says:
“Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” Psalm 85:10 (KJV)
In my opinion, Lesley’s words show us that no Christian can ever denounce the Torah based on this story. In fact, it is stories like these that even affirm the words of Jesus:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Matthew 5:17 (NIV)
However, what Lesley did not do in her words, nor could she have done so because the text would not allow it, is to absolve the scribes and Pharisees who brought her to Jesus, from any sin. Indeed, many New Testament passages reveal sin in the hearts of Jewish leaders of that day. And with this reality standing right in front of us, it is time to tackle it. I believe it is an elephant in the Christian living room: a subtle, yet very real reason why so many Christians refuse to have relationship with Jews today.
We will attempt to size up and describe this very “elephant in the room” next week if God allows.